A sustainable house made of clay

Along narrow winding streets, with a view to both forests and fields, we arrive to Karen and Flemming Abrahamsson’s rustic farm in Stenlille – placed approximately in the middle of Zealand. We are greeted by the charming couple, who run their business Fornyet Energi (Renewable Energy) from these idyllic settings, but before the coffee is served, we get a quick tour and an explanation of what it’s all about.

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Karen and Flemming Abrahamsson works from the slogan “building with consciousness”. Originally Flemming trained as a bricklayer, but when he repeatedly ran into architects without a vision for, or an understanding of, an ecologically sustainable way of building, he threw himself over the drawing board and studied to become an architect.

“For more than 30 years we have worked with renewable energy, – energy from solar, wind, biomass, compost, etc.,” explains Flemming and continues: “an ecologically sustainable way of building is our mission statement. We help with practical construction, but also with the more theoretical part of the process – consultancy, planning, design, courses, lectures and development. We also have our own production of cast iron parts for masonry stoves and we sell various composting toilets.”

The reason why we are visiting Stenlille, is however the small COB-house that lies secluded on the large plot. A small house which was created in conjunction with a workshop held by the couple in 1997. “The idea was to teach people how to build according to the COB-method,” explains Flemming and elaborates: “The COB-technique is a building method where clay, sand, soil and straw are kneaded together into a sort of “bread”. These “breads” are put together in the wall, which after drying becomes very strong. COB-walls allow that one can create some amazing shapes, they accumulate the heat and they can breathe. ”

Tim Padfield, one of the participants at the workshop recalls: “Once I took a summer break to help build a mud house. We used the very latest techniques for trampling clay, sand and straw with bare feet, controlling the quality of the material by how it stuck to our toes and timing how it settled after shaking in water. We debated the relative merits of different cereal straws and finished off the day’s labour with song and gossip round the fire before retiring to our tents of polyester fabric, kevlar rope, carbon fibre rods and silicone waterproofing”.
That Flemming and his students have had a good time while they formed and created the COB-house, there’s no doubt. You can almost imagine how they have barefooted trampled around in the clay and how the smooth lines have been created by twisting, folding and ironing on the big breads of earth until they behaved as desired. Helping to lead the workshop was also the self-proclaimed ecologist, inventor, landscape architect and author Ianto Evans, the world’s most respected COB-builder. “Ianto, originally from Wales, where they have traditionally built after the COB method, is now living in Oregon in the U.S., but he travels around the world and teaches the COB-technique,” explains Flemming. Together, the two made some broad outlines for how the house should look, and they agreed upon the concept. The details inside they only let the students’ imagination set a limit for. “However, we were constantly there to ensure that the ideas were feasible and appropriate,” adds Flemming.

So perfect is the outcome that you fully understand why this little show house, has become a heaven for Karen and Flemming.”After we had built it, we were actually so happy that we did something extra out of the interior and today we use the house frequently – as a small annex – a sort of a sanctuary where one can retire and enjoy a quiet time. And when we have guests staying overnight, there is always great demand for the COB-house “concludes Karen.

Photos by Kira Brandt, Text and Styling by Katrine Martensen-Larsen

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